The Super Bowl is an annual spectacle of brute force, finesse, strategy and, of course, marketing. For many Americans, the actual game of gridiron is second fiddle to the extravaganzas at the periphery. Since at least 2004, when we had the infamous “wardrobe malfunction,” the Super Bowl halftime show has been as big a deal as the game itself. For even longer, the Super Bowl has been precious advertising time. Live sports mean eyes watching commercials in real time. National championships are one of the few guaranteed events with tremendous numbers of people watching live, particularly as technologies such as tape delay (which has been magnified tremendously by the ubiquitous DVR) become more effective. And as the advertisers pulled out all the stops and expended massive budgets on creative Super Bowl ads to garner the most attention for their marketing dollar, the cycle has actually gone the other way. People will watch the Super Bowl for the express purpose of watching the “best” ads of the year, like a mini-Clios, and the game just gets in the way of these people’s entertainment. That can be particularly true on years when the game isn’t that great.
Advertisers got their money’s worth this year as the game was one for the ages, but it didn’t look that way for a while. Most advertisers want to get their ads in early. The first quarter slots are the most coveted, and therefore most expensive. By halftime, the marketing teams that took early slots were probably feeling very good about their decision. The game was clearly the Falcons’ to lose, and without any second half drama viewers were likely to start fading, perhaps even going to bed as the clock ticked to after 9 PM on the East Coast. But the second-half heroics of the Patriots meant that anyone who did stick around was getting quite a show, and late-game advertisers probably got more than they expected as some viewers came running back to catch the epic finale.
I spent the Super Bowl with a pen and paper and an idea: track who was advertising, what was being advertised, when the ad ran and which ads worked and which didn’t. From about ten minutes before kick-off (right after the national anthem) until the game was decided in the overtime period, I tracked every ad shown on my local FOX affiliate. The local factor is important to note because, while the game is a national broadcast, local affiliates get to run their own Super Bowl ads for local companies. Some of the ads I saw you likely didn’t see, whereas one particular potato ad that you may have seen never showed up on my screen.
Summary of 2017 Super Bowl Ads
I’m going to discuss the ten most significant ads I saw, but first I wanted to review some of the overall statistics. I tracked 116 advertisements. Some of these were ten-second spots, others were two minutes–taking the entire break between segments of the game on their own. I did not count interstitials, such as what FOX ran as their “robotic football player”1 danced before they returned to the game. These were all full advertisements, not part of some broader package deal. Of those 116 ads:
- 19 (16%) were for FOX products
- 24 Legacy, debuting right after the Super Bowl, led with six
- New FOX show Legion had four spots
- New FOX show APB had two
- Daytona 500 had 2 dedicated spots, and several other pieces that weren’t full ads. One of the Daytona ads used another massively successful FOX product, The Simpsons, to help push viewership
- An additional five were for other TV show products, three for non-traditional TV (Hulu/Netflix). Only a single cable ad. FOX defended its turf.
- 7 (6%) were movie trailers, including the very first ad shown, for the new Ghost in the Shell movie
- 10 (8%) were for cars or car companies
- 4 (3%) were for beer companies. A fifth was for wine.
While I didn’t count for statistics, many had strong political overtones. As the country is reeling and divided over the results of our recent election, the advertisers sought to speak to some strong emotions–while hopefully not alienating anyone. This was bound to cause controversy, though perhaps not as much as the Patriots, who seem equally divisive.
Narrowing over a hundred commercials to just a handful worth talking about is a challenge. Advertisers tried out all kinds of classic gimmicks: humor, sex, shock value, novelty, appeals to emotion. Nothing is forbidden when attempting to garner the most attention from a Super Bowl ad.
Here, then, are the ten ads I found to be the most significant and worthy of our attention and discussion, from my list of 116.
You can be forgiven for not knowing what this ad is for as it runs. Never once during the entire 30-second spot does Airbnb take any credit for their work in creating and sponsoring this ad. There could be reasons for this. Perhaps they felt it was a little too outspoken in the heated political climate and didn’t want any backlash, while still garnering the good will of those who care to dig. Perhaps they felt it was too on the nose given their own recent racism issues. No matter what Airbnb says their “core values” are, ultimately they are just a platform where one person rents to another. And many of those people are racist, particularly by the standards for the Airbnb executives. Advertising can help reinforce values, and sometimes it might even shift things on a microscopic level. Ultimately, though, this ad did as little to promote its values as it did to promote its sponsoring company.
Sixteen years ago I took Audi to task over an ad they were running during the football season. It told the tale of the 1982 World Rally Championship series, which was won by Michelle Mouton driving an Audi Quattro. The ad hailed the pioneering use of all-wheel drive in the vehicle, and the company’s own forward-thinking nature in having a woman drive it competitively. Sadly, the tone and language used in the ad fell far short of what was intended, and the result was basically an implication that “Quattros are so good/safe that even a woman can drive one.” It has been a long time and the ad companies have gotten better about making appeals like this. The new advertisement is looking to push society on the matter of equal pay for women; a noble goal, to be sure. Audi is clearly trying to market itself as the luxury car brand that cares about women. Sadly, this attempt may also have failed. The ad isn’t bad in any particular way, but it fails to elicit any excitement. There’s nothing there for someone who feels that the status quo is fine to cause him to get upset with that status quo. And neither does it seem to have done a great deal of good for the proponents of more movement on this issue. Many have written that they don’t want or need Audi to “champion” their cause. Meanwhile, the troglodytes of the world were angered by Audi and are trying to use this as a rallying point for their like-minded brethren. If you don’t convince anyone new, alienate those you’re trying to appeal to and simultaneously piss off a chunk of people (no matter how bigoted they may be), you have failed at Marketing 101. There’s something to be said about just appealing to the lowest common denominator.
“Lady Gaga for Tiffany & Co.”
Both of these ads played right around the halftime show featuring Lady Gaga. Tiffany and Co. took the more explicit route and hired Lady Gaga as a spokeswoman. Gaga brings a unique fan base that likely knows of Tiffany and the company’s reputation, but likely very few of them are purchasers of Tiffany’s products. It’s an odd and possibly inspired effort to broaden the reach of the brand without sacrificing the brand itself. The ad is clearly stating that Tiffany is keeping its quality and cachet of style and exclusivity.
Meanwhile, National Geographic took the opportunity here, and once more later on, to advertise their new show, “Genius.” It’s not entirely clear from the ads what the show is about, but the two ads work well to build brand and show awareness and will drive a significantly larger audience for that cable show at launch than it could have hoped for any other way. The use of Geoffry Rush as Albert Einstein playing “Bad Romance” on the violin, right after Lady Gaga was sure to have sung it for her halftime show, plays perfectly on the human brain’s love of patterns and repetition, while also being absurd enough to be humorous and attention-grabbing. I’m not alone in thinking this was a well-executed advertising plan.
“The Journey Begins”
A migrant woman and her daughter are traveling through what we must assume to be Mexico. Along the way, the daughter is collecting pieces of trash: fabric and plastic. Is this an environmental message? It’s clearly a human migration and immigration message. There are likely anti-racism motivations as well. These themes were everywhere in the ads this year, but while many other advertisers tried for a gentle nudge or a sidelong glance, 84 Lumber’s ad pokes them head on. This ad is particularly notable because apparently it was “censored”, in that FOX demanded some changes to the ad prior to broadcasting it. The full version was available for view online and that suspense and missing piece is part of the ad itself. Sometimes making something with the intent to have it censored can allow the creator to play the victim, garnering support and additional attention, a marketer’s dream scenario. Seeing the full ad could have helped explain the message, but ultimately even that confuses people. The wall is being made out of wood. Is 84, a lumber company, making a pro-wall statement? After an introduction that is clearly setting up a pro-migrant statement? What is going on here? While it generated a lot of buzz, very little of it was good. I’d say that it’s better to take a side and stick with it, but even then, as Audi showed, efforts can fall flat. Frankly, the lesson to be learned here might be: just avoid the controversy entirely.
“Born the Hard Way”
“My Son is Cam Newton”
Beer and automobiles are the staples of NFL commercials. Every Sunday, all Sunday, it’s beer, trucks, beer, cars and more beer. Unsurprisingly, then, many of these perennial advertisers are also familiar on the Super Bowl stage. Anheuser-Busch, now a wholly-owned subsidiary of international beverage giant ImBev, continues its long-standing history of running a large number of Super Bowl ads. Of the four beer ads, all four were ImBev brands. “Born the Hard Way” is another immigrant-flavored effort at advertising, but, like their beer offerings, this one is watered down. The history of America’s attitude towards immigrants is well known. Every generation of immigrants is hated, and then they’re just tolerated, and then they’re brothers-in-arms hating the next generation. This ad is supposed to be uplifting, but just feels pompous.
Meanwhile, Buick goes for the humorous route. That’s a safer pick, and this actually succeeds at first. Cam Newton, the goat (*ahem*) of last year’s Super Bowl, shows up for this one in good spirits. The effects are comical and absurd. Even the ending starts off alright, as a supermodel saying those very coachly words in her “supermodel” voice is an amusing juxtaposition. But then it goes needlesly sexist. The ref trips over his own feet, stunned by the beauty on the sideline. And the man who just watched his buddy turn into a beautiful woman immediately is checking out her buttocks. Pointless and tasteless. If this had been ten seconds shorter it would’ve been an all around winner.
“Luck – Space”
The D.C. Lottery received one of the coveted local spots in my market. This is actually remarkable. Given the lengths to which professional football has gone to avoid being associated with any form of gambling, the shift over the past few years to allow first “Daily Fantasy Leagues” to advertise and now the D.C. Lottery in a Super Bowl ad shows me that the once hard line is blurring. This may be the single biggest misstep Roger Goodell has made, if he had any control over this at all. And even if he didn’t, if he’s not pounding on FOX’s door today, infuriated by this unacceptable result of their ad space selling team, he’s doomed to go down as the worst commissioner ever. That doesn’t mean I have a problem with gambling, or daily fantasy, or even the D.C. Lottery. Paul has taken plenty of my money on football bets over the years. The point is that the NFL has been arms-length or more from those entities because it saw what gambling did to other sports. That lesson seems to have been lost.
“It’s a 10 Hair Care”
“America, we’re in for at least four years of awful hair…” They said it. They actually said it. Not the dig at Trump’s hair. That’s fair game and good marketing. But look at that part I put in bold. People are convinced that Trump is a four-year president, if he even makes it that far. How long until he’s impeached, we’re wondering? Well, what if we’re wrong? It could be eight years of President Trump. As terrifying as that may be, even if you’re in favor of his policies, this ad invokes that without being scary and remains humorous throughout. It also does a good job of building some brand recognition for a lesser-known player.
“Turkish Airlines & Morgan Freeman”
Celebrity endorsements are common, and a Super Bowl ad with one is unremarkable. What makes this ad so interesting is the middle. “Bridging worlds. Finding delight in our differences…” OK, so it’s yet another appeal to diversity and the unity of the human race. At this point, I’m fairly convinced the entire Super Bowl is just an exercise in preaching about the values of tolerance. Except, look at that pan around the airplane. The differences are all superficial. Every single person on that plane is Morgan Freeman. The differences being celebrated are hobbies and clothing styles: not race, not culture, not ideas or ideals. The complaint of those on the Trump side has been that the left is intolerant in its tolerance. “You tolerate everything and everyone, except someone who disagrees with your point of view.” This commercial looks an awful lot like that scenario could look like in real life. Everyone is welcome on Turkish Airlines, no matter how you dress or what music you listen to. No matter how you like your tea or which of (these pre-approved) magazines you choose to read. Everyone is welcome. As long as you’re just like Morgan Freeman.
Bonus Advertisement: local company “Cyprus Air” ran this ad in my market.
For those not in the local area, that’s former Redskins great offensive lineman: Joe Jacoby. While a celebrity endorsement and a political impersonator aren’t new, the combo was a remarkably strong one for a local market ad, both in terms of the celebrity payload, and also in the production values.
While patriotism and politics are common fodder for valuable discussion, when the stakes are as high as a Super Bowl ad, the pressure is on to make the most of a very limited amount of time to make a meaningful statement. By and large, I felt that the companies this year did a poor job in properly conveying their messages, and even when they succeeded, those messages were not the ray of sunshine in a cloudy political moment that these companies may have hoped for. We are talking about them more, and that’s the point of advertising, but there is such a thing as bad publicity. These ads don’t delve to that level, but neither are they what the creative teams and executives hoped for, either. Next year, for better or worse, we’ll be another year removed from the 2016 election. Perhaps we’ll see a return of something genuinely more uplifting and less divisive.
Correction 2017-02-23: A previous version of this story included links to the wrong YouTube videos.